Friday, July 31, 2009

Compassion wins in the UK

There's been an important victory for compassion and clarity of the law in the UK today, with the Law Lords ruling that the UK's Department of Public Prosecutions must give clear guidelines on when a person may face prosecution for assisting suicide. The case was brought by Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. She wants to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal, to die with dignity at the time of her choosing, but was afraid her partner would be prosecuted if he accompanied her. While no-one has ever been prosecuted in such a case (and over a hundred people have used the free market in legal jurisdictions to end their lives), several have faced investigation, and the uncertainty was a significant deterrent. If it continued, Ms Purdy would not only have been forced to choose to die earlier, while she was still able to manage it herself - but also been forced to die alone. A clear statement from the DPP on what constitutes criminal behaviour around assisted suicide will hopefully help her to avoid that fate.

In passing, the Law Lords also upheld the right to die in the manner of one's own choosing, saying:

Everyone has the right to respect for their private life and the way that Ms Purdy determines to spend the closing moments of her life is part of the act of living.

Ms Purdy wishes to avoid an undignified and distressing end to her life. She is entitled to ask that this too must be respected.

It's not a legalisation of assisted suicide - the court notes that the House of Lords recently rejected such a measure - but it is a recognition of personal autonomy and a right to at least die with dignity if you want to.

The full judgement is here [PDF].